Today is my 27th wedding anniversary. For those who saw me talk about this being my 20th year as an RPG writer, it’s easy to do the math—It took my wife Lj 6 years to convince me to try to get my home campaign ideas published in Dragon Magazine. Most of our marriage, I have tried to make a living my making things up and giving my made-up ramblings rules. For a lot of that, I was a full time freelancer, so she and I had to learn to manage on a very irregular income. But she also has always believed in me and my writing ability, and supported me when I wasn’t strong enough to support myself. I’d have given up long ago if not for my wife’s encouragement and ability to talk me through my options, and help me find the one that makes the most sense not just as a career choice, but as a life path. It is not overstating things to say that without my wife, I wouldn’t have a game writing career, but it also simplifies the issue way too much.
My wife is very different from me. She’s a bigger geek than I am. When I was still hiding game manuals for fear of being mocked, Lj was launching a gaming club in the public library. When I was convinced my ideas were mundane and unmarketable, she saw potential for a career. When I doubt myself, she is always prepared to give me an honest assessment, which is much more valuable than empty praise. Lj has made me a better man, but she’s also made me a better gamer.
It is humbling for me to think about all the way in which my wife has provided me with guidance and good examples, but that’s a few of the things spouses are supposed to do for each other. I tend to view my entire life through the lens of games. Since games are how I met nearly all my friends, and how I met the woman who is now my life, I think that’s actually pretty reasonable of me. But early in my gaming hobby, I was convinced I gamed the *right* way, and everyone else hadn’t reach my level of enlightenment yet. I saw things not in terms of what people liked, and what met their needs, but as what was good (because I enjoyed it) and what was bad (because I didn’t, and everyone else who didn’t was wrong, dumb, or both).
Long before she was my wife, Lj was the first person who enjoyed radically different aspects of gaming than I did, and was clearly smarter than me, as experiences as I was, and geekier than I was. I can’t overstate how important that realization was in slowly putting me on a path difference from Comic Book Guy on the Simpsons. And just as it opened me up to seeing games differently, watching how my wife interacted with other people opened me up to seeing the world differently. It was only in realizing I was limiting my opinion of what was good to what I personally liked best that I was able to begin to contextualize things like empathy, which saved me from being an emotional monster.
That paid huge dividends for me as a human being. Flawed though I am, I still try to live up to an ideal Lj taught me to understand. But it also paid huge dividends in my development as a game designer and later developer. I learned that people could enjoy things I didn’t, and that it was possible to study what they did and didn’t enjoy and why. You can’t always please everyone, but sometimes you can make something more people will enjoy without weakening its appeal to the core audience you want. And, once you know there is no one true way to game, you can explore your own preferences and attitudes, and examine why you like and why you like it. Even if you don’t come to appreciate a broader scope of styles and elements (and I certainly have), just the examination of what you enjoy about your favorite things can be useful in finding the best versions of those things.
Twenty years of game design. Twenty-seven years of marriage. Two long, linked journeys. Neither is complete. Both have only been possible with the love, help, guidance, and support of my wife. And that support has only been possible because of a community of family, friends, co-workers, and gamers.
Happy anniversary, sweetie.
Speaking of things I have learned:
So, in all earnestness, I hate following up something that heartfelt with something as base as asking for money. But part of the support the community gives me is the ability to take some time to write things like this, and one of the things I have learned is you have to ask for that kind of support.
So if you want to see more of these essays, follow this link to my Pateon, and pledge a couple of bucks a month. 🙂
So let’s open with this – Rogue Genius Games (RGG) has a Kickstarter running at the moment (until Oct 15th). That obviously colors my opinions, and I want my biases up front. And, to be clear, I hope you’ll click on that link and consider backing my KS campaign. This post serves triple duty, as content for my blog, as an ad for our current KS, and as a way to start a conversation about how the industry is evolving.
That said, there are a lot of people, including many in the game industry, who feel an established company, or a big company, “shouldn’t” fund projects with Kickstarter. What counts as established or big varies by person (and, honestly, sometimes by conversation, and in some cases without an accurate idea what the actual size of some of the companies involved is), and in many cases RGG is likely small or struggling enough we come in under the theoretical line for it being “fair” for us to use Kickstarter
Now to be clear, if someone doesn’t want to back a Kickstarter that’s an entirely reasonable position, regardless of their reasoning. It’s a company’s job to convince you to invest in a KS campaign, and no project is “owed” support by backers. A Kickstarter campaign being run professionally has to expect both doubt and even naysayers, and one that isn’t being run professionally is a much bigger risk to backers.
Even so I think it’s worth taking some time to explain, from my point of view as someone running a company that has used (and plans to continue to use) Kickstarter for bigger projects why I find it useful and believe it’s a legitimate and useful tool for business of any size. Of course as a producer of tabletop games, mostly RPGs, that’s going to be the focus of my thoughts.
- In the Modern Tabletop Era, Pre-Orders Are Largely Meaningless
The idea of selling a product that doesn’t exist yet is not new. From the early days of gaming, companies would take orders for books they hadn’t finished, known as pre-orders, and use that money and information to finish the book and determine how many to print.
When I was first getting into the game industry in the 1990s, many of the people I worked for were already decrying the death of the pre-order system. At least for many companies, it used to be that if you announced a product that would come out 6-9 months later, you could expect a decent percentage of your sales to be pre-orders. Fans would pre-order from game shops, game shops would pre-order from distributors, and distributors would pre-order form game companies. With that information, and historical context, you could make a reasoned estimate of how well a product would do, and set the size of your print run accordingly.
The size of a print run has a huge impact on the profitability of a game product (with the exception of Print on Demand, which has its pros and cons but is generally a discussion for another day). The more books you print, the less each book costs. Which is great—as long as you sell them all. It can be very difficult to know if you are better off printing 1,000 copies at a unit cost of $2.75 each, or printing 1,500 for a unit cost of $2.55 each. Obviously the difference in pure profit is notable, and having more to sell means more potential income. But it’s also $2,750 vs. $3,825 to pay for the whole print run. If you end up selling 999 copies, the lower per-unit cost doesn’t matter.
Working with many game companies in the modern era, the feedback I get is that not only are pre-orders much smaller and less reliable than they used to be, they are no longer particularly useful for predicting total popularity. Books tend to get roughly the same number of pre-orders regardless of how well they end up selling. I presume this means that only hardcore fans and stores are pre-ordering, and thus tend to do it regardless of a product’s general appeal, but it’s also possible that online sales have changed how the system reacts to demand. Regardless, the point is that knowing I pre-sold 40 copies of a book does nothing to tell me if it’ll sell 1,000 copies, 1,500 copies, or 3,000 copies.
A Kickstarter goes a long way to solving this problem. First, the number of Kickstarter backers a book gets almost always exceeds what it would have gotten in modern preorders, which helps replace the funding pre-orders used to give companies to do books. Also, it sets a floor for how many copies I need, helping narrow down print run sizes. Third, it seems to be a better tool for determining the overall success of a product. Both from my own experience and having spoken to numerous game companies and even retailers, books with more successful Kickstarters generally are also more successful in sales after the Kickstarter. That’s useful information to have.
- Failure Is Useful
It’s especially useful information for a game company when a Kickstarter fails to reach its funding goal. That’s frustrating, but it’s also crucial information. Game companies can be killed by a single massive failure in a book they printed. Numerous companies HAVE dies from a single big flop, though admittedly usually companies with other problems as well. But discovering a project can’t raise the minimum needed to finish it before you spend that money is a huge help. It allows game companies to take risks, which leads to innovation, because they have both a read on popularity and a source of income to do things that might cost more than their normal efforts. Discovering that something is a bad idea, or at least needs retooling, before spending all the development and print and shipping and warehousing costs for it is an enormous incentive to try riskier things. I believe that is both good for the industry overall, and for creative endeavors of specific companies and creators.
- It’s Good Advertising
There aren’t all that many great, affordable venues for reaching tens of thousands of potential customers in the tabletop industry anymore. At one time Dragon magazine had a circulation over 100,000 copies. While there are successful game magazines still running (Rite Publishing’s Pathways is amazingly steady and has affordable ad options – but again, I am biased as someone who works for Rite), none of them have anything like that reach. The closest I can think of with that kind of power is John Reyst’s d20pfsrd.com site, and numerous companies I know have made great use of it… to advertise Kickstarters.
I strongly suspect that one (admittedly of many) reasons pre-orders are down in the modern era is that there isn’t a “magazine of record” for RPGs and tabletop as a whole. Dragon was, at least for a good chunk of its existence, much more than a D&D magazine. I read reviews of and saw ads for many competing game systems in its pages, and nothing with that broad base appeal and vast reach seems to still exist.
A Kickstarter is an event, and it’s one that encourages word of mouth. Because of the structure of stretch goals, people already backing you have an incentive to tell their friends and get THEM to back you, so the end product is better. And it allows a game company to push advertising for a specific time period—the duration of the Kickstarter campaign, and know that those efforts pay off in terms of total product size and quality, and likely long-term sales.
- Speaking of Stretch Goals
If a Kickstarter goes crazy-popular, and the creator manages it properly (and yes, you can mishandle a Kickstarter as a creator, but that’s hardly a problem unique to the platform), you can discover demand for something is much higher than you thought. If you offer a campaign to fund a 32-page supplement on Halfling War Baking, and it turns out what the world really wants is a 160 page hardback full color book on the topic, it’s great to discover that while there’s time to value-size your project. Similarly done properly (again, which doesn’t always happen), a Kickstarter can also let you test the waters for supplements and related add-on products. A game company might well have no other way of getting this information, and thus customers might have no other change to indicate they want it. As a connection directly between creator and consumer, this is huge. Speaking of which:
- It Creates a Community
There are pros and cons to this one, on both sides, but having a venue where people who have put their money where their mouth is can speak directly to creators has a vast potential I think creators are still learning the right way to benefit from. For customers, being able to pledge $1 to be able to speak directly to the creator, in a venue where other customers can publicly see your opinion, has a strong potential for encouraging accountability. Or course it also creates a new potential for trolling, but you take the bad with the good in this case.
Creators can also ask question directly of the people already paying them, adjust a product based on popular feedback, explain their processes—it’s a weird combination of written seminars, ad space, and forums. At its worst, it can become a toxic pool, but so can most means of online communication. At its best it’s an open and creative forum of stakeholders in a developing project, and I think that benefit is both underappreciated and still developing.
Compared to entertainment option creators like movie studios and big novel publishing houses, even the largest tabletop RPG game creator is tiny. I think there is a strong benefit in having a new and interactive way for just folks who have proven their interest in a project get to interact with the creators of it to try to build bonds and (hopefully) earn trust and buy-in.
- Finally, From Folks Smarter Than Me
Monte Cook Games are great, smart folks, who do RPG Kickstaters well. Like, expert-level well. Since it’s a public post, I am going to link to a Facebook post of Shanna Germain, where she talks about and shows a post by Charles M. Ryan that speaks to “Why Kickstarter?” I think it’s well worth the read.
Speaking Of Online Funding Sites
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There’s been some interest expressed recently in what my résumé looks like, inspired at least in part with the fact that Paizo has job positions open, and I have managed to get hired by Paizo. That’s a fair point, and goodness knows I got help when I was first trying to put together a game-industry facing résumé, but before we discuss the subject at hand, I want to point a few things out.
First, I am not an expert, or even a talented amateur, on the subject of résumés. My advice is of the hardscrabble trial-and-error type, and even if you find it interesting I strongly, STRONGLY advise you also get some professional help. There are guides online, books on the subject, centers that offer free help in some cases—look for them and use them. We’re talking about your first impression for an opportunity that could change your life. The offhand commentary from a free gamer blog should NOT be your primary source of guidance.
Second, my résumé objectively has a horrible track record. Don’t get me wrong, I am THRLLED to be working for Paizo, Green Ronin, and Rite Publishing. But I applied for jobs at Paizo three times before I was hired. I applied for jobs with other game industry positions seventeen (I counted) times between my first game industry job at Wizards of the Cost and my current full-time position. Now those results may be typical—but they don’t point to my résumé being the ur-model with which all game industry jobs become attainable.
For the most part, people who hired me already knew me and had worked with me. I can’t express how important that is. If you want a full-time game industry job, you need to be getting published. Write on your own free blog if no one else will pay you. Reach out to tiny game publishers. Work cheap (but NEVER for free—if anyone is making money on your work, you need to be making money on it).
Third, this is my general “résumé for the game industry” advice. It’s not Paizo specific, following my suggestions does not assure you any special treatment in any current hiring situation, and there isn’t a test over it. This is my personal, experienced-based opinion, and nothing more.
Fourth, this is advice for a game designer/developer/editor type of position. If you are applying for human resources director, or accounting, or marketing, or some other professional position in a game company that isn’t making and polishing text for games? Ignore my advice. Those are jobs that require you to prove you can do THOSE jobs. Don’t apply to be a game industry accountant with a huge list o game credits. It’s worth noting you understand and enjoy games… but what you need to focus on for that is accounting.
So, with those notes in place, what does my résumé look like?
It Doesn’t Look Like A Character Sheet
Some readers are shocked I feel the need to say this, and others are shocked I am going to speak out against it. Yes, there was maybe a time when making a “cute” or “creative” résumé would get more attention and give you a leg up in hiring. That time was the 1980s. Now everyone assumes you “love games,” are “uniquely creative,” and “can bring fun and great ideas to your company.”
What they DON’T assume is that you can be professional, work in an office environment, and take things like formats and deadlines seriously. This is your first change to show them you can.
No bright orange paper. No unicorn doodles in the margins. No formatting your résumé to look like a character sheet, a set of wargames rules, a wanted poster, or anything other than a professional resume. Don’t use weird fonts, custom graphics, or flowcharts. Those cute ideas look great on your blog, as proof you are creative. They don’t look great on the des of a manager who has to find someone who can sit in a cube 40 hours a week and produce useable text and documentation.
Your résumé should be black ink on while paper (or background for electronic résumés), have headers for each section, and list things in concise, possibly bullet-pointed lists.
It Offers Simple Info, Not Complex Explanations
If you went to Clarion West in 2014, absolutely list that with education or experiences. DON’T go into great detail about who instructed you, who you sat next to, or what the name of the insold manuscript you created is. Yes, the person hiring may want to know those things. And you want them to want to know those things. You also want them to have to call your for an interview to learn those things, and you want to have neat things to say in that interview.
For your résumé? Just the facts, man.
It Excludes Irrelevant Info
No one needs to know your worked for Burger Clown from 2003 to 2007. Really, unless it speaks to your ability to make games, no one needs to know anything about your jobs from 2003 to 2007. If you were working at a library, museum, book bindery, archeological dig, computer lab, another publisher (of anything), or even a deadline-and-rules focused job, it’s worth mentioning.
Otherwise? Just skip it.
You can mark your employment history “Recent Employment” or “Key Job Experiences” or anything else you like that’s simple and factual if you want it to be clear you aren’t listing every job you’ve had your entire life. But useless info that doesn’t make you look like a better game industry employee is just more words they have to get through while looking for a reason to hire you.
This is ALSO true of education. If you have some college? Mention it. If not, and there’s nothing else there that you think will make a game industry manager want to hire you? Just skip the section entirely.
The game industry has everything from high school dropouts to M.I.T. graduates. Focus on the things that make you look good, no matter which end of that spectrum you’re on. And if at an interview stage someone asks you why you dropped out of school, “I was too busy playing games” isn’t a bad answer in THIS industry, despite sounding terrible for any other job.
It Includes Everything I Was Ever Paid to Write, Develop, Edit, or Consult On
Yep, everything. I have a Publication Credits section, after everything else, and it is pages and pages of credits. It’s arranged by type of credit (author, designer, developer, and so on), and then by year, and then by product. If I wasn’t the only person doing that job, I include a “with” note (“with JD Wiker and Jeff Grubb”). For series and magazine articles I sometimes compress them together with a note a full list is available. (Dragon magazine, various articles issues 251-355, full list available upon request).
Your credits are your REAL résumé for the game industry. If you have a blog? List it. Include the url, so a reader can go check out how brilliant you are. If you have 31 self-published credits each of which has sold 4 copies? List them. It’s proof you can finish something. If you have a wiki on game rules for DragonBurger, an obscure boardgame from 1993/ List it. It shows you have passion and the ability to organize information.
I try to keep a running list of everything I have credits in, so I don’t have to take 12 hours to compile them later. That’s what I say “resume you résumé,” because if you want a job in this industry, you should be working on your resume nonstop, a little at a time, every time you get a credit.
It Has Everything Else the Job Posting Calls For
Cover letter. Writing Sample. Whatever the job posting says to include, I include. This is your first chance to prove you can do what the people hiring you tell you to do. And that is WHY they are hiring you—to do what they say. Game industry jobs can be fun, but they ARE jobs.
Your résumé is your first chance to prove you understand that.
It’s Spell Checked, and My Wife Reads It
A typo in your résumé may not be a dealbreaker… but why risk it?
It Doesn’t End With a Link to My Patreon
Though honestly? Maybe it should. But my blog DEFINITELY should, because my patron’s support is how I manage the time to write things like this. If you found this useful and want to support more content like this? Please consider offering some support.
I’m surprised how often this comes up, but there is often a sad lack of professionalism in the game industry. It’s not all one-way, and it’s not all intentional, and it’s not all unique to this industry… but some of it is, and that causes issues throughout the hobby. Especially as some big conventions are coming up, and those often mean new contacts and new work deals, I wanted to talk about it a bit.
I’m certainly not the gatekeeper of gaming professionalism, but there are some things that seem to be common among the industry folks I look up to who are better-known, smarter, and more graceful than I am, and I do my best to emulate the. This list isn’t comprehensive or absolute – there are important things I and missing and side cases that might be rare exceptions to these principals. But in general, this is a fair baseline for what I see as the start of game industry professionalism.
Oh, and I want it to be fun to read, so it’s broken into movie quote section.
Break a Deal, Face the Wheel
No, no one will actually put a fiberglass mask on your head and send you off to die in the desert… but if you get a reputation for not doing what you have contracted and agreed to, you may end up in an allegorical desert when all the available work dries up.
Look, the industry is often brutal. Pay is too low, deadlines too short, respect too uncommon (especially among some segments of fans). Some years not only would I have made more money spending the same amount of time doing minimum wage fast food jobs, but my main reward was to be called out and attacked by people with less experience and understanding of games than I have. It can suck.
But leaving people in a lurch makes it suck more.
If you agree to do a job, and the other side holds up their end, you need to do your best to hold up your end. I have had people I thought were promising freelancers, who I took a risk on, mentored, said nice things about and introduced to other publishers, take a contract, ask me to push back the deadline by months, then stop communicating at all, then tell me they can no longer do the project at all and give me some half-assed outline in way of recompense. All while continuing to do work for other companies.
If mental health issues has you down? Yes, that’s no different that backing out of a running job because you broke a leg. You need to be up-front and honest, and tell me as soon as possible, but I get it. But do it early, be frank, and don’t immediately prove it’s not about that by taking even more work from other people. If you need a break, take a break.
But if the job you are doing for me just got pushed back to the back of your queue so often because of better work coming along that you’ve decided it’s not fun anymore, or no longer a good use of your time? Tough. You agreed to do this project. We have a contract. Do it.
You’re not just making a publishers life more difficult when you just throw a project aside. You are boosting their missed opportunity cost, adding stress, and preventing them from paying everyone else who would be involved. It’s unprofessional, and it’s way too common among way too many freelancers.
The reverse of this is ALSO true. If you tell someone you’ll publish their work, and there’s no formal timeline, and five years alter you still haven’t? You are screwing with them. And, obviously, pay what you say you will pay, when you say you will or before. Giving feedback is optional, but smart to improve the whole industry. Bad-mouthing a freelancer to other publishers for some behavior you never told THEM was an issue/ Unprofessional. Cancelling a project and just never telling people working on turnovers? Unprofessional. Sitting on a manuscript for years? Unprofessional… and I’ve been guilty of that one.
Keep it Secret. Keep it Safe.
We rarely have information as crucial as the location of the One Ring, but there certainly are things you shouldn’t let the (various) Dark Lords know.
What information is exchanged between company and employee or freelancer as part of a work arrangement should be kept between those two, unless there’s a crime involved or an agreement that says otherwise or it’s become common knowledge. If you get to work on Ultimate Sentient Weapons, a major book that hasn’t been announced yet, you SHOULD NOT then use that information to write a book that does the same thing but better, and sell it before USW comes out. That’s screwing over your partner who got you that info, and it’s not cool. Similarly if a freelancer tells a publisher the freelancer is already working on something similar, the publisher should not take steps to trademark names involved, or change publishing dates, or badmouth them to damage their reputation, or change the project to cover the idea the freelance admitted to having.
Even without an NDA, don’t do this.
Once things are all out in the open, normal intellectual property rights can apply. And if the publisher is giving the info to lots of folks to do associated projects, there’s no reason not to ask if you can be included in that set of folks. But you can’t use info you were given to do a job for A Corp, then leverage it to sell a tie-in to B Corp before anyone even knows it has happened. Similarly, don’t leak files, even just to your friend Josh. Because you may trust Josh… but Josh may trust Wilhelm, and Wilhelm may trust Jerry, and Jerry may be an asshole. Don’t take the risk.
It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.
What you do and say as a representative of yourself is your business. But if you wrote for a company’s new book, and you go to that company’s forum, and you take sole credit for things that were developed, edited, and worked on by 7 folks? Not cool. And if you badmouth it as crap the developers ruined? Not professional. And if you attack and insult customers who are annoyed? Way unprofessional.
If you can at all help it, don’t escalate conversations people who work with you are going to have to deal with. It’s like leaving a dead fish on the counter. If it’s your counter that’s gross, but you have to deal with it. If you leave it on my counter, you are making my life harder as the reward for me working with you.
Also, you will build a reputation. It will get around. Consider what you want it to be.
Be Kind. Rewind.
This industry is a meat grinder all too often. People with great talent and love of games leave both for more money, and for less stress and grief from fans.
So, try to be nice.
Yes, this is a vague hand-wave at professionalism, but give it some thought. If it takes only a tiny bit more effort to be nice to folks, why not do that? Yes, sometimes people are attacking you, or actively damaging your company or your reputation, and “nice” may not be a reasonable reply.
But if we were all nice whenever we could be? That would fix a lot of issues too.
Give more credit that you take.
Tell people when they make a positive impact on your life. Thank them.
Consider if you are being needlessly cruel in feedback. Saying you hate a game mechanic is very different from saying it’s idiotic and you don’t understand how anyone could ever think it was a good idea, and even THAT is different from saying a game’s writers are idiots who clearly only have their jobs because they are friends with the developer and the boss is so checked out he doesn’t care what gets published.
We HAVE lost people from the industry from such behavior. We’ll never stop it all, but if I can have one rock thrown at me each day or twelve, I’ll pick just one.
Self-Promotion Done Right
You can build up yourself without tearing anyone down. For example, I have a Patreon, and I’d love if you backed it.
Clinton Boomer has a Patreon. It’s awesome. You should back it too.
So does Jacob Blackmon!
I’d rather talk about how awesome these all are, and let you decide where to spend your money.
This entire post was sponsored by the Open Gaming Store. It’s awesome, too.
I screwed up recently (not a new or rare occurrence), which lead me to begin running down my mental checklist for how to handle that fact. I realized I’ve never talked about that checklist, and that lead to:
Screwing Up. Next Steps.
Congratulations, you screwed up. Now what?
This is my general guide for when you screw up on what to do AFTER the screw up. It is born of my professional experiences in the game industry, and personal experiences as an uneducated depressive introvert with confrontation, communication, and time management problems.
In short this comes from a LOT of experience screwing up, but they are all a specific set of screw-ups. Your massive personal failures may vary, and I am not a trained or expert screw up therapist.
Step One: Accept and Acknowledge
These are two separate things, but they are pretty tightly linked. Let’s start with acceptance.
This is specifically a guide for when YOU have screwed up. Not when someone screwed something else up and you catch the blame, or when the universe screws things up and you have to find ways to fix it. The built-in framework here is for when, yeah, you screwed up.
So, you have to accept that.
Acceptance is important for a lot of reasons. First, without your own buy in that you screwed up, you won’t be able to internalize the lesson that screw up contains. Second, acting like you screwed up when you don’t believe you did leads to resentment, among other things.
I’m not here to tell you when you screwed up. Just to say you have to take a long, hard look at major failures, and decide if that’s your own fault. If no, then you need to manage the disaster with an eye towards those factors that DID cause it. But if you screwed up, you need to accept that fact.
Acknowledgement in this case means acknowledging the screw up to those effected. If you fail to do something you said you’d do, or do something that causes problems for others, you need to let them know that YOU know.
This isn’t the place for self-flagellation. The object here is not to garner sympathy, or make yourself feel worse, or make the people who are negatively impacted by your screw up feel worse. It’s just a heads-up that yes, there’s a problem, you caused it, and you know it. Doing this right is tricky. I find efforts to spin why or how you screwed up often get in the way of a clean and useful acknowledgement. Sometimes people need to know why or how, or ask for their own purposes, and that’s fine (if it’s not private, which it can be). But the idea in this acknowledgement isn’t to cover your ass against the consequences (but in some environments you might have to do that, and only you can make that call). The idea here is to bring the other people involved up to your level of information in a polite, professional, and straightforward way.
Step Two: Assess
Okay, this entire article assumes you have screwed up. That’s the premise. This is about finding out how BADLY you screwed up, and what led to the screw up.
Step two is really about baring down on step one as many times as you need to. I personally think accepting and acknowledging at least begin before assessing—admit you screwed up and let people know there’s an issue as soon as you are sure there is one. But right after that, figure out how big a problem you caused. If that calls for accepting that things are worse than you thought (or realizing it’s not that big a deal), and updating anyone else affected, then do that. You need the information to continue this checklist.
Step Three: Mitigate
Nope, the steps aren’t all A words.
Now that you have an idea how big a problem you caused and how you caused it, see if there’s anything reasonable you can do to fix it. What’s reasonable is going to vary, and I can’t really give you hard rules for that. Small problems, or screw ups that it is easier for someone else to fix, or screw ups so massive or personal that anything you try only makes things worse, certainly do happen. You need to see if you can fix it, and if not can you make things better, and if not what can you do to minimizing making things even worse.
Those are of course, all super vague. Lemme give some examples.
If you are working on a project for someone and you know for certain you are going to miss a deadline, you have likely screwed up. If you accept and acknowledge that fact, and assessed the screw up, you should have contacted the person you are to turn it over to and let them know you are going to miss the deadline.
The next question is, now what?
If you are only going to be a little late and the person you are working with can handle that, then mitigating is making sure you hit your new deadline. If you can’t finish the thing at all, you may need to figure out what you can do, and see if that’s helpful. And certainly, you don’t keep hiding or obfuscating that the project is going to be late in the hope you can finish it before you get pinned down. That’s not mitigation.
This may include some hard conversations with people you have let down. Again, straightforward and professional behavior is, in my experience, your best option. But you need to mitigate your screw up with appropriate levels of effort. Don’t cause more problems or become obsessed over the great lengths needed to fix a minor screw up. You can’t let even moderate screw ups take over your life. And if you can’t mitigate the damage you have done, you need to accept AND ACKNOWLEDGE for that too. People may be disappointed or even angry, but they deserve the truth.
Step Four: Learning
Most of my own screw up result from behavior I could have avoided if I had been smart or forethoughtful enough. As a result, after I realize I have screwed something up and done what I can to fix it, I want to examine what I did wrong. Making mistakes is human. Making the same mistake over and over is dumb.
Keep in mind, you often won’t get this right. It’s easy to take the wrong lesson away from an issue, or think your error was unique to a specific circumstance without recognize an underlying behavior that applies in a broader context than you think. Making a mistake about how you made a mistake is frustration, but it’s going to happen. So when you screw up, be sure to examine not only that specific calamity, but anything similar that you’ve screwed up before. In some cases, you’ll find you missed a larger lesson, and that’s your opportunity to finally learn it.
None of this can fix the fact you screwed up, and while that’s unfortunate it’s also okay. Everyone screws up from time to time. Hopefully you’ll screw up less often than I do, and you won’t need a mental checklist of how to handle such situations. But because everyone screws up occasionally, I have found that when you tackle you own screw ups with honesty, clear communication, and an effort to fix both the issues you cause and the underlying problems that lead to the screw up, people are generally understanding. Not everyone, of course, but you can never control the behavior of other people. You can only control what you do, and imperfectly at that. Which is what makes handling your own screw ups in an adult and reasonable manner so important.
Changing topics entirely, I want to let folks who haven;t read the end of one of my articles before know I have a Patreon. It’s how I justify taking the time to write a lot of this material on my blog. I’d love your support.
Quick story, as Gen Con looms.
When I went to interview for a staff job at Wizards of the Coast in 1999 (they flew me from OK to Seattle), I wore a suit. Slacks, dress shirt, tie, jacket, black shoes, the whole 9 yards.
One of the things everyone made VERY clear to me during those interviews was that WotC had a casual atmosphere, and there wasn’t really a dress code at work. I felt overdressed.
OTOH, I a: got the job and b: later heard that another candidate showed up in a fast food uniform. No one ever told me that made a difference… but no one said it didn’t. And one person tad me that the fact I showed up in a suit proved I was taking the job seriously. I have never regretted wearing a suit to that.
When I went to a dinner at GenCon that Sword & Sorcery was having to see who they wanted to work on the EverQuest Tabletop RPG, I wore a polo and jeans. I didn’t feel either overdressed or underdressed, and I got a lot of work from that meeting. I have never regretted wearing a polo to that.
I always recommend looking professional and tidy, and give the impression you take every opportunity professionally and seriously. If you later get told you can dress down, feel free.
But first impression really can count.